European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Elis-Thomas Lord Elis-Thomas Plaid Cymru 1:35 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as an elected Member of the National Assembly for Wales who is married to an interpreter accredited to European Union institutions in pursuance of its co-official languages provision.

I warmly welcome the referendum and particularly the debate that will happen throughout the United Kingdom as part of it. After all, on this Bench my noble friend and I are veterans of at least three referenda on devolution and a possibly even more significant one on the opening of licensed premises on Sundays in parts of Wales that we both represented. I can also say that the question is absolutely unambiguous in both official languages of the National Assembly for Wales.

We will support any amendment which enfranchises 16 year-olds. We obtained that concession on the Wales Act before the Westminster election. It is totally inappropriate that there should be a different franchise between a referendum on one issue and a referendum on another.

Like my noble friend, I am a veteran of the 1975 referendum, where I must confess publicly—not for the first time—that I voted on the wrong side. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for whom I once worked in pursuance of his bilingual policy is surprised by that. In those days, the party of which I am still a loyal member in this House and elsewhere had a strange slogan which I am sure my noble friend will remember. We had a car sticker which read, “Europe yes, EEC no”. I believe that it was subsequently withdrawn because it was not clear to the electorate what it might mean. My noble friend was on the right side in those days, being more perspicacious than I was. I have tried to make up for it since.

Renegotiation is not a one-off process. It was not something that happened in 1975, then occasionally when there were treaties to be agreed later and is happening again now. The European Union is constantly in a process of negotiation. I remember very clearly, after voting on the wrong side in 1975, my first visit to the European institutions as an elected Member from down the corridor. I met Irish colleagues and was laughed at out loud for taking such a view. My experience as an elected Member here in Westminster and in Cardiff is one of strong, continual co-operation between elected colleagues in the Republic and in the north of the island of Ireland. Particularly in the area of agriculture and fisheries, they have common policies which are part of a renegotiated European policy. Being able to work alongside other parliamentary and Assembly colleagues in different regions of Europe has been the most pleasurable part of my life—apart from coming to this House, of course; I have to say that.

Before devolution, led most ably by Peter Walker when he was Secretary of State for Wales and by other Secretaries of State, there was a policy that ensured that Wales was alongside much more powerful so-called “motor regions” in the European Union. Welsh local authorities played a key role. The National Assembly is now an active member of the Committee of the Regions. My colleague, the reverend Rhodri Glyn Thomas, will be delivering an opinion yn Gymraeg—that is, in the Welsh language; as I mentioned, the Welsh language is a co-official language—on marine energy in the Committee of the Regions this week. During my period presiding over the National Assembly, I was privileged to be part of the standing conference of European regional assemblies, where we shared experiences of our constitutional framework.

The renegotiation in the previous Parliament—the current Assembly for us—of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy is a very good example of the way shared competences, even exclusive competences, of the European Union are constantly reconsidered, re-examined and redeveloped. This is the way the Union operates. On energy policy and the environment, on the major question of climate change and on transportation we have this understanding of the need to create a European infrastructure. This applies across the Union.

The current renegotiation is but part of a story. Let us not delude ourselves that this will be the final decision. In the development of constitutions there is no such thing as an end game. Constitutions in democracies continually develop and redevelop. It is because of that that participation is the key issue: discussion and debate. This is how these unions develop.

For me, perhaps the most important aspect of the debate about the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union is the debate on identity and nationality. I wear a badge constantly —it is my anti-UKIP device—which has the European Union flag and, of course, the red dragon of Wales, currently much displayed on the football and rugby fields. I have to say that because I suspect that my colleague is on his way to support the national team tonight. No doubt, that is why I am speaking in this debate.

The identity of Wales is of a European region: a nationality within the United Kingdom and within the European Union. When I presided in Cardiff and chaired the Assembly Commission, I had one major responsibility —for flagpoles. I ensured that we had four flagpoles, one with the logo of the Assembly, and others with the European Union flag, the United Kingdom flag and the red dragon. The key thing about those flags is that they always flew at the same level. For me, identity is pluralistic. I am not a member of a particular nationality; I am also a Welsh European. I believe in subsidiarity and in sharing competences and understanding. That is nothing exceptional. It is the world that I was born into in 1946. I want to ensure that it will be the world of my grandchildren as well.